Our diversity research is before the Supreme Court: Let's not misinterpret it

7 months ago 14

Affirmative action is before the Supreme Court again. The last time the court debated it in 2015, the petitioners alleged that the University of Texas at Austin racially discriminated against a white law school applicant. The university, they argued, must offer “actual evidence, rather than overbroad generalizations about the value of favored or disfavored groups” to show that “the alleged interest was substantial enough to justify the use of race.

Our research, published shortly before the 2015 court discussion, provided precisely that evidence, demonstrating how diversity — specifically the racial and ethnic kind — improves how people process information to make decisions. Disrupting conformity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Racial and ethnic diversity benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike. 

In the current case before the court, all parties pay their respects to diversity.

The petitioners, led by the conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, speak about “the educational benefits of overall student-body diversity.”  The respondents, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, never questioned these benefits.  

For its part, the court, in its past decisions, recognized “a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” in the words of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And our research figures prominently in a supporting brief filed by corporations from Apple, Google, and Meta to Starbucks, IKEA, and GM, all lauding the importance of racial diversity in university education. 

But all — including us in our earlier work — miss a crucial point: Reaping the benefits of diversity requires more than admitting a diverse cohort. To reap the full benefits of diversity, people must interact. They must give and take. They must pay attention to each other. But paying attention can’t be taken for granted, even when doing so is in one’s self-interest.   

We came to this conclusion after examining  when the benefits of diversity materialize and when they are wasted. To answer the question, we conducted extensive, multi-year experiments that captured people’s willingness to observe and learn from peers. We presented over 2,500 working-age Americans with a challenging puzzle and offered a cash bonus if they found the solution.    

Each participant could see how their peers, either white or Black, solved the same puzzle and choose whether to learn from them. Participants were not told this was the case but the only way to get the correct answer was to use input from their peers, allowing us to test whether participants were more likely to dismiss information from one racial group.  

We find that white Americans are much more likely to ignore (and hence less likely to learn from) the choices of their Black peers. In our experiment, they were are 33 percent more likely to pay attention to and learn from white peers than Black ones; and they also rated Black peers as less skilled than white peers, even if their suggestions were identical to those of white participants.  Instead of taking the perspective and following the choices of their Black peers, white Americans tend to lock-in to their own limited information, ending with a suboptimal decision. 

In two further studies, we explored treatments intended to reduce this racial attention deficit. In the first, we used an approach common in many places — explicitly mentioning the credentials of peers. Before engaging with the puzzle, each participant received information about the peers’ high scores on a standardized test everyone took at the experiment’s start. When we mentioned the peers’ accomplishments, participants no longer perceived Black peers as less competent than White ones. But behaviorally, the gap remained: They were still more likely to heed the decision of a white peer than a Black one.

The next study tried a different approach. Here the participants received no advance information about their peers. Instead, they were given a chance to work side-by-side with them. Not by being told about the prior accomplishments of the Black peers but by firsthand experience, the bias disappeared.

For the benefits of diversity to materialize, we need to do more than admitting a variety of people and telling them how talented each other group is. We need shared everyday experiences, like observing each other, working side-by-side, discussions and even debates. But universities fall short at creating opportunities for white students to notice minorities.  

Even if admissions offices strive to create diverse classes, the kind of diverse classrooms Justice O’Connor imagined are far too rare. Instead, missed opportunities for attention to minorities and connections with them continue as students self-sort into majors.  

Asian Americans are more likely to be found studying economics, finance, and electrical engineering. Black and Hispanic students dominate the student body in public administration and social service professions. For example, they outnumber whites about 2:1 in “Homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting, and related protective services.” Elementary education and history are the favorites of whites, but not “area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies,” where whites are a minority. The most diverse classrooms are in business, psychology, nursing and biology.  Out of 1,000 Black students graduating from college, only 20 hold a degree in engineering. For Hispanic students, the situation is better with 41 out of 1,000. Yet both fall below the rate among whites, where 47 of 1,000 graduates hold a engineering degree. The differences are even starker when gender is combined with race: White men earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering at roughly six times the rate of Hispanic women and more than 11 times the rate of Black women. Conversely, White women earn bachelors in health and related fields roughly three times the rate of Hispanic or Black men. 

The result: Classrooms provide shirking opportunities for White students to listen to — and exchange with — minority students. An admirable study by the University of Texas at Austin showed zero or just one African American student in 90 percent of its typical undergraduate classrooms. What’s more, minority groups like Asians and Blacks are even less likely to meet, simply because they’re fewer in number and pursue distinct majors.   

Moreover, racial segregation in the classrooms of elite (so-called “selective”) universities is reinforced by patterns of housing, dining, club memberships, and friendship networks. Given persistent patterns of discrimination, we perfectly understand why members of minority groups would prefer living with co-ethnics. But we are also cognizant that when minorities are congregated on one side of campus, they have even fewer opportunities to interact with members of other groups.  

Universities have a duty not only to admit a diverse class but also to ascertain to what extent these admitted students pay attention to each other. Course and dorm records are already in university databases and can be analyzed. Surveys and behavioral instruments should be developed to measure progress or stagnation in opportunities for interaction across racial lines on America’s university campuses.  

Creating a racially diverse student body is an admirable objective. But the more demanding goal is providing the grounds for racial interaction that disrupts our conformities, affirms our differences, and amplifies our capabilities. Diversity makes us brighter — but only if we’re paying attention.

Sheen S. Levine, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Organizations, Strategy and International Management at the University of Texas, Dallas. David Stark, Ph.D. is Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. They are the coauthors of “Ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles”, “Diversity Makes You Brighter,” and “Racial Attention Deficit,” among others. Their research has been relied upon by the US Navy, referenced in congressional testimony and presented to the Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University.

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